Glen Heal’s journey back to Calgary’s downtown
— Fred Holliss
Life has looped around a little for Glen. The first complete meal he ever cooked was when he was a kid camping with the Scouts, a passion he pursued until he was 25. Now here he is, with his own son, and Scouts are back in his life, this time as a volunteer trying to teach Cubs the basics of cooking, or how not to burn water.
Born in Regina, he spent weekends and Summers on the family farm in Saskatchewan, getting lots of dirt under his nails. He started cooking when he was five, helping out his mom with baking and his grandmother with bread making. She had a couple of huge gardens, and would pickle and can the harvest, supplying the family and others in the area. The farm also had thirteen cows, and Glen grew up on whole milk, fresh vegetables, and non-hormone livestock, which left him with a taste for honest, earthy flavours and colours.
Glen knew he wanted to be a Chef by the time he was seven, and he got his first job as a dishwasher at 14. Working at Bonanza in Regina, he quickly worked his way up the line, and at 19 was invited by a family friend to run a new restaurant called Buffet Palace. As a cocky youngster he made a few mistakes, but stayed the course and got his Red Seal by 1995, when he moved to Calgary.
He got work as a sous-chef at Don Quijote, where he developed a taste for Spanish cuisine. After a couple of years it was time to move on, this time working for a restaurant group up north managing kitchens in three hotels. Constantly moving between Dawson Creek, Grande Prairie and High Level while living out of hotels wasn’t the romantic lifestyle it promised to be, so he returned to Calgary and Don Quijote until he got an offer from the James Joyce downtown.
This marked the beginning of his other lifelong passion, a love of Stephen Avenue. At the Joyce he also had the opportunity to develop new dishes, albeit accommodating traditions such as boxtys and black pudding. He enjoyed putting his unique stamp on things, and getting feedback directly from his customers. He also thrives under pressure, enjoying the volume when it really gets going, and knowing how to move, how to think, and how to make sure the plate is perfect every time.
Moving back to Regina to help his parents out in ’99 meant a separation from Stephen Avenue for a couple of years, as did the next job back here as part of the opening team for the Cornerstone Grill on Southland Drive. That in turn led to running the kitchen at Jubilations Dinner Theatre for three years, where he got to indulge his sense of humour a bit, designing signature dishes for each run. He fondly recalls designing a dessert for “Gilligan’s Island” of an éclair boat on a blue jello sea, and dressing individual wedding spongecakes for “When Harry Met Sally.”
That was when he met his wife, then an opera singer, and they moved back to her home town of Winnipeg. It was a pretty tough market, so Glen ended up working for a high-end fishing lodge as personal chef to a couple of dozen ever-changing hunters and fishermen. Living in the woods was quite an experience, and led to some close encounters with wildlife. It wasn’t unusual to have caribou wander through the camp, or have a bear knock on the front door. But only seeing his wife on occasional weekends wasn’t enough so, after a couple of years it was time to return to Calgary and Jubilations for a year or so, and that in turn led to a return to Steven Avenue as head Chef at Milestones for another seven years.
Glen has only been with Metropolitan Grill, also on Steven Ave, for a couple of months now, and hasn’t yet had time to put his personal stamp on many of their dishes. The Met was just in the process of designing a new menu when he signed up so he didn’t really have a chance for much input, although the Mac and Cheese is one of his. However, they are introducing a monthly features sheet after Stampede, and that will give him an opportunity to strut his stuff.
He tries to balance his menus, to offer something for vegetarians as well as the meat eaters, and to accommodate whatever the current allergy craze may be. Sympathetic to people with real dietary problems, he’s had too many experiences with customers just trying to pull a fast one and tries to limit the number of off-menu dishes they create. He’s also looking forward to working at a smaller location where he can take a bit of a leap and create new things, rather than at a big conglomerate where everything has to be dialled in and there’s no straying.
He knows that every chef goes through phases where they swear they don’t ever want to cook again, but he can’t really see himself stopping. A bit of a hobbyist woodworker, he thinks that construction is about the only thing besides being a Chef that he might try, and even that isn’t very appealing. Cooking is in his blood.
Which brings him back to the Scouts. Working with youngsters, and helping shape their development and appreciation for the world helps him stay grounded. The ability to teach fundamental things such as independence and respect for nature is something he firmly believes we need more of in the world. There’s nothing better than being able to get out to the country, grabbing your compass, and heading off. Just don’t end up at the bottom of a crevass.